‘Nothing prepared me for the unimpeachable beauty and abject horror of Harvesting’

‘Room Little Darker’ author June Caldwell traces the evolution of her writing group partner, Lisa Harding

Book club: June Caldwell, Liz McSkeane, Lisa Harding, Joanne Hayden and Ger Moane

Book club: June Caldwell, Liz McSkeane, Lisa Harding, Joanne Hayden and Ger Moane

 

Winter 2014 and we’re all in a pickle. Our brains are sore. We are worn out doing writing courses. Literary journals and writing competitions have also lost their lustre. A bunch of us decide to meet in Brooks Hotel on Drury Street over peppermint tea for two hours every fortnight instead. A read-aloud writers’ group to pull each other out of the swamp and into literary prominence.

And that’s what happened, over the next two years. Slowly, unsurely, draft after draft: stories, novels, misshapen fiction hybrids, began to flaunt their curious conceits in our collective face.

I’d met Lisa Harding the year before at a short story workshop taught by Mike McCormack at the Irish Writers Centre. Her short stories were deeply psychological, a bit zingy and creepy, and usually left me thinking for days. The ghost of a small boy making nocturnal visits to a frosty boarding school teacher; a toddler in her mother’s arms en route to a dangerous scenario to pay off a loan shark. They often had a fairytale quality, involved a child in a heartbreaking or tough living situation, where the adults continued to wittingly let them down. And even when they did make it to adulthood and were off out doing their own thing – like the character Sinéad in a story about a disingenuous psychotherapist in an affluent area of London – refuge was never conveniently an arm’s length away. “It’s a cruel world out there, when you’re trying to make it, and London spits out more pretty girls than it can chew.” These stories were tangible, strange, and relevant. Characters frantically inhabited by an actress who was turning her hand to writing story down for the first time, in an almost frenzied manner. Fiction that wakes you up the way a smoke alarm might in bottomless sleep.

Still, nothing prepared me for the unimpeachable beauty and abject horror of Harvesting. I remember how nervous Lisa was showing it to the group. How already – only days into writing – she was under Nico’s spell, finding it hard to sleep. “I can’t stop the pour,” she said, when she sat down to hear our thoughts. “I literally am dancing the keyboard every hour of the day right now, it’s intimidating, she won’t leave me be.”

A young innocent girl playing out in the fields with her brothers and the family dog, in an unnamed country in Eastern Europe. “A cooling breeze creeps up my skirt, tickling my thighs, as I scale the highest branch of the highest tree in the forest.” A girl who has only just begun to think of boys and daydreams about swimming in the sea some day. Pages that were so pitch-perfect they wouldn’t change at all in the final version that made it to the book shelves when published by New Island Books in 2017. When Nico arrives home from the fields that day, there are whisperings about marriage, about what her eventual “worth” might be. But she doesn’t know what these things mean, or what could possibly lie ahead. There was little anyone in the group could say apart from “Jesus, this is great stuff, keep going, the prose is doing exactly what it needs to be doing”.

Weeks later we were introduced to Nico’s Irish counterpart Sammy, who I didn’t like at first. When I say I didn’t like her, I didn’t take to her in the same way as Nico. She reminded me of posh kids I knew. Posh hurt kids from good families doing shit things. Neglectful families with cash in place of heart; all Moët and muppetry. For me she was almost in the way of Nico’s story because I had become so invested in her as a character. “Men are craning their necks everywhere I go,” Sammy tells us in her inaugural chapter. Oh God, I know this type of person, I thought, how can I have sympathy for what she’s going to bring upon herself? But that’s exactly what self-abuse is about, and it is no less tragic than any other type of abuse.

Reading a book like this, even a first draft, presents you with a lot of issues that need to be confronted. I had to question why I felt such deep sadness and empathy for Nico, while wanting to slap Sammy across the chops. Good fiction should always make you question and even better if it elicits an emotional response, and this book achieved it in spades.

The structure Lisa chose for this novel – alternate chapters, different perspectives – illustrates the point brilliantly that diverse pathways can bring unalike people towards the same revolting fate. Sammy is a “splendid specimen” who is groomed and cajoled into the sex trade by someone she fancies and trusts. Nico belongs to that other stream who are ritually raped by pimps and/or traffickers to make them compliant as sex objects for an ugly market that is boundless and insatiable. Both girls are abjectly abused and controlled. Both are victims. Both are strong. Both their stories are typical of the kind of thing that can happen in a world that undervalues and abuses women by proxy.

While Sammy might seem at face value to be more worldly-wise with more inner resources to carry her to freedom…as the story progresses it becomes obvious that both are similarly trapped and deeply injured. Redemption, recovery, the essence of Harvesting, is dramatised by Nico and Sammy’s unique friendship in the house where they eventually meet. Sammy asks her about the “sleepy time” tablets Ana has given her, Nico shows her the marks from handcuffs on her wrists caused by the “game the man likes”. And so it goes. Nico is focused on cherished memories of home to get her through, Sammy is forever burying hers. Together, through the commonplace logistics of horror, they find and build a solid connection. Hope and an analogous dream of a good life beyond the here and now.

Lisa Harding and I signed book deals on the same day in the same hotel, in the same hour, with the same publisher. Other members of the writers’ group went on to publish novels, win prizes, set up their own presses and complete MAs in those two years. I still can’t even flick through Harvesting, never mind read it, without crying my lamps out. Girls that are still out there staring through windows beyond the watery sky to other worlds – worlds that only exist in their minds, in order that they can survive.

Harvesting by Lisa Harding is November’s Irish Times Book Club choice

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